Analysis |

Israel's Aggressive Acts Aren’t Hindering Iran Nuclear Talks

Attacks on Iranian targets fail to make a dent in stance of Iran, U.S. or other world powers hoping to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Members from the parties to the Iran nuclear deal, including Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia and Iran at a meeting in Vienna Saturday.
Members from the parties to the Iran nuclear deal, including Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia and Iran at a meeting in Vienna Saturday.Credit: Handout / EU Delegation in Vienna / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In recent weeks, according to the foreign media, Israel has accelerated the series of attacks against Iran. After a number of commando attacks against Iranian tankers that were smuggling oil to Syria, there was an explosion in a ship serving as an Iranian Revolutionary Guard command and control center in the Red Sea. And in the nuclear facility in Natanz someone planted a bomb that caused serious damage to the centrifuges for enriching uranium, a moment after the Iranians held a celebration in honor of National Nuclear Day.

But if those attacks were designed to divert the Iranians from their path, and to force them to make concessions during the renewed negotiations over the nuclear treaty, it’s hard to find proof that the method is working. Moreover, it seems that even the major world powers aren’t convinced. In the last few days, both the members of the Iranian delegation to the talks and the representatives of the United States are reporting progress in the contacts in Vienna, which are designed to restore the nuclear deal, originally signed in 2015 by Iran and the group of world powers: the U.S., U.K., France, China, Russia and Germany.

Meanwhile in Beirut, the Russian press agency Sputnik reported in Arabic that Russia and Iran had agreed to build a joint operations room that would secure the movement of ships to Syria in the Mediterranean. If the report turns out to be reliable, Israel may have difficulty continuing the attacks, which are likely to cause friction between Israeli forces and Russian ships.

These two developments may indicate that Israel, despite its impressive operational ability, is not playing on an empty field and cannot dictate the progress of events on its own. It’s not only Iran that has a strategy of its own and a stubborn ability to adhere to its objectives. The world powers are also not subordinating their considerations to the agenda of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As far as the Iranians are concerned, there has been an accumulation of Israeli actions that will probably require a response at some point. But at the same time, there is a strategic goal that the Iranian leadership is determined to achieve – a U.S. return to the nuclear treaty, a lifting of the sanctions imposed on Iran and guaranteeing an agreement that will not impose overly stringent limitations on the nuclear program. All these are likely to be of higher priority than settling accounts.

Meanwhile, the American withdrawal from the treaty in 2018 (to which Israeli pressure on the administration of President Donald Trump contributed), actually brought Iran closer to nuclear power to some extent. If the Iranian breakout range for producing a bomb was estimated at about a year at the time of the signing of the treaty in 2015, now the accumulation of enriched uranium (in violation of the treaty) shortens the range to just a few months.

All the signs seem to indicate that the United States is determined to continue in the diplomatic channel in order to sign a new treaty. That is the goal posited by the new president, Joe Biden, upon entering the White House in January. Over the weekend, The Washington Post described the relations between Biden and Netanyahu as “less warm” than relations with the previous administration, and noted that the attack in Natanz turned the simmering dispute between the sides into an acute problem.

The Israeli move, claims the newspaper, is seen as an act of sabotage designed to undermine the negotiations between Iran and the world powers. All that turns relations with Israel into a personal question for Biden, whose prestige lies in the balance, because he promised during his election campaign to restore the nuclear treaty.

In his speech on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Netanyahu once again attacked the agreement that is being formulated and declared that Israel will not be bound by it. He didn’t say whether Israel will continue to try to prevent its signing and implementation. Meanwhile, there are signs of cracks in the anti-Iranian coalition. In recent years there has been considerable talk about the rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with the encouragement of the Trump administration. In the case of the UAE and Bahrain, things ended up with full normalization agreements with Israel last year.

But apparently the Saudis are already smelling the signs of regional change and are acting accordingly. On Sunday the British newspaper Financial Times reported that for the first time in five years there were direct talks between leading Saudi and Iranian officials, with Iraqi mediation, in light of the changes in the administration in Washington and the renewal of the nuclear talks.

Another important event took place on Sunday. For the first time in months Israel’s security cabinet convened in Jerusalem to discuss developments on the Iranian question. The meeting took place only after heavy pressure by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. Perhaps they, like many others, are afraid that Israel is being dragged into a dramatic change in policy towards Iran without sufficient clarification of the issues.

However, the degree of seriousness of the forum, during the tenure of an almost-perennial transitional government, can also apparently be assessed by the following fact: In Likud it was agreed on Sunday that ministers Yoav Gallant and Miri Regev would serve in the cabinet alternately – one time he’ll be a member and she’ll be an observer, and the next time the opposite. A logical solution after all: The major general (res.) who was already preparing to be chief of staff, and was privy to all of Israel’s top secrets, is equal in importance to the person in charge of ceremonies. But maybe that proves that Netanyahu attributes an identical degree of importance to both their opinions as he does to the opinions of other Likud ministers (almost zero).

Gideon Frank, former director general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, said that he doesn’t see any strategic thinking at the moment in Israel on the Iranian question, only tactical thinking. Interviewed Sunday on Kan Public Broadcasting Corporation radio, Frank said he thinks that Israel must focus on attempts to influence the position of the United States in the negotiations, rather than on determining facts on the ground.

The interviewer asked if he is worried. “Very worried,” replied Frank – and his reply seems to represent many other former senior officials, who are following the events of recent weeks with a certain degree of surprise, on the verge of panic.

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